October 23, 2011

Dark Festivities

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Happy Samhain everybody!

I don’t know about you all, but Samhain is definitely my favorite holiday. I mean, sure, there’s some stuff I could do without — taking stock of livestock and deciding which ones to slaughter for the winter can be a real drag — but it’s worth it for everything else. Lighting bonfires, carving turnips into lanterns (sometimes even with faces to ward off spirits!), dressing up in costumes and playing pranks … there’s nothing like a good Samhain.Unless you’re Wiccan, pagan, Irish or are majoring in Medieval Holiday Studies, you probably aren’t too familiar with Samhain (and if you are majoring in Medieval Holiday Studies, how do I apply?). But Samhain probably seemed very familiar to you. It, you see, is the holiday upon which our modern Halloween is based. Pumpkins have replaced turnips and the costumes tend to be movie characters and sexy bunny rabbits rather than Celtic spirits, but the general principle is the same.It was a long and convoluted process that gave us Halloween from Samhain. Originally, Samhain was a purely pagan festival, but in the Middle Ages it became associated with All Saints’ Day, a Christian feast day for honoring the dead. During the 19th century’s waves of Irish immigration, Sahmain (which by then had become known as All Hallows Eve, or Hallowe’en for short) came to the United States, where it transformed into the secular, commodified holiday we know today.And Halloween hasn’t stopped at the United States. Indeed, trick-or-treating, jack-o-lanterns and other aspects of the Halloween ritual have found their way to everywhere from Colombia to Hong Kong. This is mostly thanks to the proliferation of American pop culture and media, and indeed in some countries Halloween is actively discouraged as “too American.”It seems remarkable to think that a holiday could spread across the world like this, reaching and appealing to people who have no apparent relation to the country of its origin. One explanation could be that the power of the American media is so strong that it can introduce any culture to a holiday and it will take root.But another is that this sort of celebration — a night for disguises, pranks, scares and other illicit things — is one that people just plain enjoy, regardless of culture. This is supported by the fact that many countries had similar celebrations before coming into contact with the holiday, which were then integrated with Halloween. Yet often in these cultures, we see the native celebrations being superceded by the commercial American Halloween.This kind of holiday, in its pure form, has always existed somewhat on the outside of what is traditionally accepted by society. Part of the reason the early church established All Saints’ Day on the 1st of November was to discourage the old Samhain rituals, and modern religious groups in many countries object to Halloween as a “demonic” holiday. Think about what Halloween is supposed to entail, after all: staying up late, dressing ghoulishly, overindulging in candy and trashy entertainment — these are not activities for good little boys and girls! Yet on Halloween we can pretend we’re outlaws, if only for a night.However, in a major way, Halloween has been commercially co-opted, and thus made legitimate. There’s nothing dark or transgressive about fun-size Snickers bars or pumpkin costumes for babies, yet they’re what the corporate world would like us to associate with Halloween. And that could be another reason that Halloween has managed to spread across the world: The Halloween peddled by the American media is so tame and generic that people just plain don’t notice it’s there.What began as a celebration of the harvest became a night for spooks and is now a night for salesmen. What began as the ritual of a specific ethnic group in a specific area is now found all over the world. It encapsulates modern society’s general trend, in other words.Boo!Aidan Bonner is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at abonner@cornellsun.com. The Weather Report appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Aidan Bonner